In Both Policy and Politics, Democrats are Being Outfoxed

After a brutal elections season Congressional Republicans holed up in a Williamsburg hotel to figure out not only what went wrong, but how to fix it. What they settled on was a simple strategy: focus on the fights you can win. As Charles Krauthammer wrote,

“The party establishment is coming around to the view that if you try to govern from one house – you lose. You not only don’t get the cuts, you get the blame for rattled markets and economic uncertainty. You get humiliated by having to cave in the end. And you get opinion polls ranking you below head lice and colonoscopies in popularity.”

At the time this meant allowing Democrats to pass a short-term increase in the debt limit in return for a small, but important concession: the Senate had to pass a budget. This was a much different approach than the last several years when Congressional Republicans demanded spending cuts commensurate with the amount of the increase.

Many questioned the approach, arguing that it was akin to capitulation. But it has turned out to be a subtle masterstroke that not only has Obama on his heels, but many Democrats questioning his leadership. It goes back to the seeming defeat on the “fiscal cliff” when Republicans successfully whittled down the President’s tax demands to be as small as they could possible.

This was a small loss that could lead to big wins because it is now much harder for the Obama Administration to sell Americans on the idea of including new revenue in any subsequent deal. Republicans can honestly say, we already raised taxes, now it’s time to focus on spending.

Which is exactly what happened in the recent sequester negotiations. Obama never got the public traction he needed to be able to convince Republicans they needed to cave. Instead, Obama was stuck with a sad-sack Plan B that involved trumping up the supposed effects of cutting a teensy-weensy percentage of the federal budget. That approach ended up backfiring on the President who alienated voters, especially after he asked for, then rejected a bill that would grant him more flexibility to implement the sequester cuts.

And now it’s budget season. Congressional Republicans have already passed a six month stopgap spending bill that reflects the sequester cuts, but pushes no further. This makes Democrats, who expect to see federal spending increase exponentially year after year, quietly furious. Nevertheless, a chastened White House has been forced to capitulate. Namely, they’ve been reduced to putting out a statement of administration policy that they are “deeply concerned” with the House plan, but tellingly refused to issue a veto threat.

This puts Senate Democrats, who are now left to cobble together a budget for the first time in years, in a serious bind. Do they put out something that truly reflects their big-spending liberal priorities or do they try and strike a more moderate tone for fear of the potential political ramifications? Will they be able to get enough senators to agree to either of these approaches? As Chris Stirewalt writes for Fox News:

But the other reason Senate Democrats haven’t acted on a budget (or much else) in years is because of deep divisions within the party. Unable to find agreement on even basic concepts like entitlement reform and tax rates, Reid has been happy to let his members cool their heels while Obama and House Republicans fight their way from crisis to crisis.

With Democrats playing defense on at least 10 Senate seats next year, this is not an ideal time to start visiting these thorny issues and the budget process promises to sorely test party solidarity. Swing state Democrats will be looking to keep plenty of daylight between themselves and more liberal members, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

But they will also be looking to show distance between themselves and Obama, who’s slumping approval ratings show him to be a liability in many of the races, especially in red states.

Lest you think that’s just Fox spin, Politico reports that a number of Democrats have made clear that the partisan posture Obama has adopted over the past few months “is making an uphill slog that much steeper.”

In other words, everything is not it seems for Democrats. Just months after the election their party has been unable to capitalize on their momentum and instead find themselves playing defense on both the policy and political fronts.